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Shouldn’t You Be a Blue Belt By Now? or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My White Belt


Shouldn’t You Be a Blue Belt By Now? or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My White Belt


Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 12.51.45 AMShouldn’t you be a blue belt by now? I get asked that question quite a bit.  A lot actually.  Usually by new people I meet (and am about to or have just finished rolling with) or people I’m attempting to spread the gospel of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to, and typically more often than I enjoy answering.

It’s a question that, quite frankly, perplexes me—especially when asked by fellow jiu-jitsu practitioners.  I feel the paradigm in a sport where most gyms adapt a “ranks are earned not given” makes the answer pretty clear:

I do not have a blue belt because I am not at that level yet.

I'll get there, I'm just not there right now.

It's not life ruining, nor is it a travesty.  I trust in the judgment of my instructors and, no, I don’t think they’re out to get me.  As a guy who spent the better half of two years trying to find the right the right gym and BJJ mentors, I have a great deal of respect in my instructor's assessments of my skill.  They’re not the type to set an alert on their Google Calendar and say, “shit, it’s time to advance Esparza.”  They also are not the type to sandbag.  If they say I’m a white belt, that’s what I am.

Of course, that never makes the follow up question any easier to swallow:

Well, how long have you been doing this?

The cliff notes version of my background reads something like this:

- Two years of consistent training at the same gym (occasionally supplemented with cross training at other gyms).  The first year averaged training about 2-2.5 times a week, with the second year averaging about 3 days a week.  Most of my training taking place in a gi. - Prior to my current two years of training streak, there was a period of highly inconsistent off-and-on no gi training for a little over a year (that was nothing to write home about). - And before that, there was an eight-year layoff of regular athletic activity during college (I affectionately refer to as my “age of lethargy”), where my metabolism slowly lost all of the work 11 years of soccer and other sports worked so hard to establish. - I never received any martial arts or wrestling training while growing up or in school.

It’s the two years training part that always seems to catch most people’s attention.

That’s about the time the average person starts to progress, but I am not the average person.  I’m not a naturally gifted athlete, I don’t pick up things naturally, and I don’t compete (and have zero desire to do so).

When I get asked these questions, it’s hard not to get embarrassed or feel ashamed like a kid who realizes he’s getting held back a grade or three.  Which is why my most consistent answer is: Well, have I mentioned I’m terrible at jiu-jitsu?

This is probably the point where I should mention I write comedy for a living.  As a comic, my deadpan delivery and timing tends to get a laugh and elicit an “aww, that’s not true,” but I’m never quite sure how one seriously answers a question inadvertently designed to remind you of why it’s so fantastic to advance way slower than everyone else.

It’s also a reason why I constantly have to remind myself: My journey is my own and unlike others around me.

Me doing jiu-jitsu

I didn’t get in this sport to be the best, win Mundials or because I wanted to prove I was some thirty one year old BJJ prodigy who the world has been sleeping on.  My rationale for doing BJJ is quite simple: I want to become a better person.  I want to feel healthy as I ease into an older age and do something that feels a thousand more times fulfilling than being cooped up in a gym for hours.

I have no interest in doing any other sport, nor do I get excited about the prospect of things like long distance running or crossfit to compliment my training (muscle confusion?  The only reason my muscles would ever get confused is wondering how in the hell they picked up a weight in the first place).

For me, just getting on the mats is a success.  One that literally keeps me from being obese or substantially out of shape (as opposed to my current condition of “grossly out of shape”)—and, perhaps most importantly, one that forces me to face a great deal of my own anxieties.

I do, however, think it’s important to note, I’m not a crazy advancement person.  I don’t hover around my instructors and pester them with questions like “how long do you think it’ll be until I’m ready?”  I’m a pretty patient person and know that all good things take time, drilling, and a great deal of trial and error.  There’s no substitute or shortcut for that.

So when people like to politely remind me I’m behind the learning curve, I don’t tend to get fixated with the color of my belt.  If anything, I sometimes get down about the following two items:

1) I constantly fail at remedial things.  As any fan of math, I know there's nothing wrong with being outside of the norm.  It is, however, discouraging when you find your self consistently struggling with the remedial (especially when you know just enough to recognize it).  Stupid things like sidewise shoulder rolls and putting pressure on my neck always look and feel terrible (I carry a lot of my stress in my shoulders).  I’m not very flexible or mobile (my back is all shades of screwed up), so I often have to do things as best I can.  While small movements feel like mini-accomplishments, I never feel like I have full control over my body—which makes it feel difficult implementing simple movements into my repertoire.  Couple that with being a guy who often feels jiu-jitsu dyslexic and struggles to even demonstrate the the basics while rolling—and often who watches a number of people (new and old) get and implement those same techniques at a much faster rate—that’s the stuff that stings way more than the need for a different colored belt around my waist.

2) The stigma that’s associated with being a white belt.  This never really feels bad during years one and two, but when you’re getting into your third year of training, it’s not so fun being categorized at this level.  Some of it is self-imposed (you feeling stupid about everything), some of it is implied (shouldn’t you be a white belt by now?), and some of it is deserved (frankly, white belts haven’t put in the years of mat time others have).  It’s this very stigma that’s often prompted me not to talk at great length about my own training and, sometimes, even to feel ashamed of displaying my white belt around others who train in public.


So I guess now is as good a time as any:

My name is Raf Esparza and I am a three stripe white belt (it feels good to say that out loud).  I’m a perfectionist who’s often too hard on myself and consistently makes self-deprecating comments how terrible I am at jiu-jitsu, but only because I have a great deal of confidence in my work ethic and potential.  I don’t care how long it takes to get any belt, I will always go the gym and ask myself the same question every day: How do I get better?

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When my friend Amechi Akpom unveiled his new project—an online website designed to track your progress in BJJ through the use of stats, charts, and online videos—I realized I might finally have a tool that can help me improve my game.  So after months of contemplating, I’ve decided to finally pull the trigger on an open online training journal (the idea of me writing a training journal actually predates our podcast).

I’ve gone back and forth on doing this for some time—a great deal of my trepidation coming from the stigma of being some no name white belt with nothing to offer and a nervousness of documenting how much I struggle with it.  But much like you find the older people in your life who stop censoring what comes out of their mouth, there comes a point where a two year white belt stops caring what others think.  Maybe I’m already hitting old man status a little too early, but I’d like to think I’m at a healthy place in my life where I don’t care if others see or read how truly bad I am at jiu-jitsu. I own it (and wear it quite well, actually).

I truly believe my time in jiu-jitsu has started to make me a better person.  I’ve lost close to 20 pounds, I feel healthier and more alive than than I have in over ten years, and I’ve seen a dramatic shift in my own philosophical approach to life that’s made me a happier person in the process.

bjj training journal logo-main

I think that may also explain why I’ve stopped seeing my white belt as a limitation as of late.  What’s often a rank that provokes eye rolls on the faces of some advanced practitioners actually presents a great deal of freedom.  You get a free pass to mess up and make all the mistakes you need to grow.  It's kinda a chance to change things up, experiment, and modify your game without any major consequence.

It took me a long time to think of it in that context and, ever since, I’ve been way more open at discussing my own struggles, without care of how it makes me sound.  I’m a white belt, I’m supposed to say and do dumb things.  What of it?

I think what’s ultimately helped reshape the way I look at my training is this simple concept: I’m not going to get any better just obsessing over the negative.  Off the mats, I'm good at finding the humor in the struggle and enjoy facilitating conversations with my friends about the trends we see in the sport.  More specifically, the humor is cathartic to me and is a fantastic reminder that the journey is bigger than just the one I face.

So it only makes sense to lend one of my strengths (writing silly narratives) to something I constantly feel not so great at.  By doing so, I also get the chance to chronicle the beginnings of an experience that's already made me a better person in the process.

I’m a storyteller at heart and hope to share some observations that even the most seasoned of jiu-jitsu practitioners can laugh at.  If you’re one of those people who feels stupid for being on the outside of the curve, this is also for you.  If you’re entirely new to the sport, hopefully this thing will let you know that your struggle is my struggle.  And if you’re one of those people who just naturally gets things in jiu-jitsu… well, you can go straight to hell.


Yeah, I suppose this blog’s for you, too.  If you’re a BJJ prodigy, you still face a great deal of challenges that are completely different than mine.  We all share the same desire to get better at the sport and a shocking number of parallel experiences, and that's good enough for me.

It’s my hope that this journal also serves as a tribute to the good people who help me achieve my goal of getting better every day.  I have an exceptional team, great coaches, and a ridiculous amount of support within the jiu-jitsu community through this podcast.  I still can’t believe so many within the community have taken me in as one of their own.  I’m truly lucky to have that in my favor and want to do something positive to reflect that feeling.

So in response to the question at hand, I’m well aware it’ll likely take me at least another year to get near my next belt—and even longer to move my way up to any further advanced rankings down the road—but I’m pretty ok with that.  It just means I’ll have plenty of material to write about as I continue my journey.  I hope you all will come along for the ride.

You can find me and friend me over at Raf Esparza on for more.

And to listen to our podcast interview with Amechi Akpom about the BJJ Training Journal website, head on over to this link.



BJJ Breakdown Breaks Down Kevin

As some of you may recall, last month Kev competed in a no gi, BJJ tourney over on the other side of the world (Virgina).  Turns out, we found video evidence of it.  And our pal, JOHN EVANS, was nice enough to give that match the royal BJJ Breakdown treatment.

Not only does John do a nice job of analyzing Kev's technique (or occasional lack thereof), but he's also nice enough to ignore the fact that Kevin's shirt makes him look like a slightly slimmer Kool-Aid Man.

On a serious note, we'd like to thank John Wiseman Franklin for allowing us to put the match up on our website and BJJ Breakdown to analyze it.  We hope it's an educational tool for all those who enjoy BJJ and who enjoy making fun of Kevin as much as I do.

And props to the always excellent BJJ Breakdown.  Hopefully we'll have more of these in the future for you to analyze.  My only request is that next time there be more jokes at Kev's expense (like this, "I'm glad to see they settled on a catch weight for this match.  And by catch weight, I mean, Kev 'caught' a case of being fat."  That's just off the top of my head; I'm happy to refine it).



I'm Just Here To Pay My Dues: The BJJ Notebook

ABJJ Notebooks some of you may know, the podcast and website are more than just hobbies for Kevin and me.  We both train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu recreationally and are big proponents of the "gentle art."  So even when we're not toiling away editing articles or the podcast, we're always trying to learn more about the craft. Over the years, I've seen this book pop up more than a number of times in my social media news feeds, but was never motivated to actually purchase it (and if not this one in particular, others like it).  Ultimately, I figured I could just make my own version of this book if I really wanted to.

And I did!  I tend to use a lot of moleskin notebooks a lot to jot down notes, jokes and observations and decided about a year ago to dedicate one such notebook solely to my BJJ training regimen.

It worked... for awhile.  I made a regular routine of writing down the lessons each day and figuring out what parts of my training I needed to concentrate on.  But, over time, I stopped writing in it on a regular basis.  I'd constantly lose it or forget to go over the day's featured technique.  Pretty soon, I found that lessons of the day would go by the wayside—leaving all that knowledge I was working so hard to build to just rot away in my brain (which, itself, is a fragile thing).  And, lo and behold, that happened to be exact moment when I felt parts of my training recall and execution were becoming stagnant.

It bugged me.  I'd occasionally pick up the book and try to start the routine over again, but, for whatever reason, it never seemed to stick.  Eventually I just figured it was gonna take something pretty big to motivate me to get back on track.

Enter our interview with Rafael Lovato Jr.

The night of that interview something just snapped.  Here we were interviewing a guy who didn't have the luxury of a nearby Black Belt teaching him how to improve his game when he was coming through the ranks.  He had to travel thousands of miles out of his way just to learn more about the process.  It wasn't just about wanting to be better, it was about making the commitment to be better.

Suddenly the "tough" challenge of writing in a journal didn't seem like such a difficult task by comparison.  Try as I might, I just couldn't justify my own excuses for skipping out on the BJJ journaling process—especially as a guy who likes to consider himself a writer.

Promptly after the interview, I saw a link for the book again that praised it's usefulness.  At this point I said to myself, "screw it, if I'm going to do this, my money should go to someone who took the time to make this and who appreciates the craft of BJJ like I do."

Moreover, I wanted the accountability.  The safest way to ever force yourself to do something is to make it an investment.  Suddenly I wasn't just forgetting to write in a training journal, it was now "hey dummy, you're wasting money if you don't keep this up."

So keep it up, I shall.

I'm happy to report that it landed on my desk two days after I put in the order and, as of this moment, I've already filled out two days worth of entries on a heavy training week.

Additionally, now that Kev and I have the luxury of the extended family that is the community, I feel it entirely appropriate to occasionally wax poetic on my own BJJ struggles to an audience who can either appreciate my perspective or have been there themselves.

I hope you all will keep me accountable on this and, in return, I'll try to bring the same eye for fun, nonsense and humor about my trials and tribulations with training in the same light I do for all things MMA, BJJ, and UFC posted on this website.  I'll let you know how my progress comes along (or doesn't).  It'll be a great time.

Sound good?  Deal!

Thanks in advance and I'll see you on the mats.



Triangle Choke... Marriage Proposal?

So when did mixed martial arts suddenly become the trendy way to propose marriage? Right off the heels of a razor thin victory proposal from Benson Henderson in the Octagon two weeks ago, we have this new video that was brought to our attention thanks to the good people over at Tap.Nap.Snap.Your MMA Recap.

During a perfectly normal roll between a couple, the male jiu-jitsu practitioner below decides to pull guard AND her heartstrings.

So... a few questions.  And since jiu-jitsu is never a perfect art, feel free to take my observations and notes here with a grain of salt.

  1. Would an arm triangle have made a stronger selection here? I respect the choice to go for a triangle choke, but might an arm triangle afforded an opportunity to slip the ring directly on the finger ("boom, you're engaged!")
  2. Was there a plan if she had said "no?"  Do you finish the choke if that were the case?
  3. Wait... in this scenario are you supposed to finish the choke?  I feel it's just bad drilling to just release the hold.  I mean, how are you ever going to learn the muscle memory for the move without the repetition?

I suppose the part that makes me laugh the most here, is watching the guy scramble for the ring while also playing defense (major props to the corner man who gives his buddy the ring in the ring!).  And then when he does actually get the ring, there's an added element of danger of "Wait, is he going to drop that?  What if he doesn't set the move up correctly and she ends up passing his guard?  What will happen then!!!  No one wants a marriage proposal from side mount!"

All kidding aside, we'd like to extend our congratulations to the couple in the video.  I personally hope they continue the whole jiu-jitsu theme for all of their wedding proceedings (Oh my God, the wedding officiant needs to be a ref!)

And, I for one, think these crazy kids are gonna make it.  Don't they say, "the couple who trains jiu-jitsu together... have absolutely no problem kicking the living crap out of anyone who dares give them a problem?"

Either way, on behalf of us at Verbal Tap, best of luck to you guys and we sincerely wish you all the best!